MAP was at the juvenile justice forum at the Capitol in Austin, Texas last week and we heard 9 kids tell their stories and share their personal experiences with juvenile justice in Travis County. The kids took part in a year long program funded by the Hogg Foundation and produced by Texas Network of Youth Services . They served as a part of the Youth Research & Advocacy Committee. They were between 14 & 22 years of age (although the general age seemed to be around 16-17) and they conducted policy research, participated in advocacy training, and developed an ageneda for the conference held last week.
One of the great successes in MAP’s opinion about the program itself and the resulting conference, was that issues discussed were student-led. It was the concerns and suggestions of the juveniles who have had prior experience with the system that led the agenda of the research and the conference. We know that student-led learning is an effective way to engage kids in their own learning and hold them responsible for outcomes, and if last week’s conference was any example, we should be employing student-led learning to the maximum extent possible for all kids. Because these kids did what many adults would think was impossible for them to do.
There were similarities among them, and the fact that they were nervous was the least of those. But more significant, each one of them was able to compose an articulate, thoroughly researched presentation in which they effectively spoke about their experience, their observations and their suggestions for improvements to the system. They were able to make sustained eye contact, answer questions, and engage the audience with the unique kind of ‘off the cuff’ humor that kids who have struggled so often have. Many of them went beyond research to suggest programs and initiatives that might benefit all juveniles interacting with the criminal justice system, and as for reducing juvenile interaction with criminal justice, it became evident as you listened to these kids that they want what every child wants: to be cared for, supported, heard, loved–even when they have made a mistake. They want to know what’s going to happen to them. They want to not be afraid of the future, their tomorrows.
Statistically (and I’m not speaking about the conference kids right now, but rather about at-risk kids in general) we know that for most at-risk kids, many of these nurturing support systems that are so divinely the right of children everywhere, simply do not exist. It’s a deeply imperfect world. Many children enter, upon birth, a savage landscape with impenatrable obstacles and challenges.
Yet here they stood, bright-eyed, clear-headed and well-spoken, defying every stereotype about their potential, their possibilities and their progress. They have managed to align themselves with this higher path for nearly a year, discovering in the process that they are perhaps capable of more than even they imagined. But the road ahead for them is fraught with danger. For like all programs, this one has come to end. And one more time, in the world of these young offenders, the battle between redemption and recidivism may be decided in the fragile balance of who stops into their life next.